Dressed All Wrong For This
By Francine Witte
Blue Light Press, 2019
73 Pages, $15.95
Review by Corey Miller
Her stories are existential situations that rarely span for longer than one page. The sentences have been distilled down to their purest essence. Witte teleports the reader into worlds where monogamy doesn’t exist and people can change into animals without warning, blurring the line between reality and outrageousness. The glue holding this collection together is Witte’s voice, the deadpan seriousness, the way she commits to the craziness.
In two stories, “Horse Name” and “Dog Name,” the characters question what their animal name would be. Both stories showcase Witte’s ability to use an impossible situation as a metaphor for a more serious human struggle. Creating their names, the characters realize how animal they already are, communicating without words, searching for new titles for their predicament as they become the animal they discuss:
“You should have —,” Joan says. “You should have —.” I have tuned her out even now, but really because I am watching her shake her head, mane-like. At this point, Joan goes silent and begins to stomp her hoof, and she noses towards a saddle I hadn’t noticed before.
“You want to go for a ride?” I ask. “Is that it, Girl?”
Witte has a wonderful way of incorporating the title into the piece, usually as the start of the first line. For example, “When Zac, 32, Walks In IRL,” continues right into the story:
“he looks nothing like his profile pic. For one, he’s wearing a fake mustache. For two, his hair is blonde.
He recognizes me, of course. I’ve gone to great lengths to look exactly like my profile pic, which is me in my cooking class, and I’m sitting here with a frying pan, just to be safe.”
Witte’s stories are machines that bring their character’s desires from dreams to real life. They have strong repeating rhythms; beginning with something concrete that teeters between normal and odd, further delving into the unknown and absurd where all is possible, and ending on a note of sincerity that is often ponderous, yet, can create moments of humor.
“Spy Story” is about a wife who hires a private eye to investigate her husband, but when he doesn’t find any immediate evidence, she continues to keep him on the books, dressing him up and calling him by the code name Hector. They soon develop a relationship where she employs him to act like James Bond and become her new husband.
In “Suzo the Clown,” Witte collides opposing characters in a way that erupts with dry humor. A child’s Dad outdrinks Suzo in a bar bet, forcing Suzo to perform for free at the child’s birthday party. After revealing that Suzo has been abandoning his ex-wives in the woods as food for bears, the kids turn savage on him. However, before the kids can get to Suzo, all of his ex-wives, having survived, burst in with meat cleavers to seek revenge.
“Suzo didn’t wear clown makeup or clown shoes. He was more of an emotional clown. He got us in a circle and told us about his wife, Methuselah. How he drove her up Shaw Mountain and left her there as bear food. He thought that was pretty funny.”
Witte’s stories can be so playful and wacky that when you get to one like “The Cake, The Smoke, and The Moon,” you’re caught off-guard and have to reread it. It’s such a beautifully sad story about a drowning on the Fourth of July, and eating cake on a blanket while watching the fireworks’ smoke disappear over the lake. After the bursting glows in the sky fade, the moonlight is all the lifeguards have to search by.
“We will watch the water open its mouth and swallow. The one walking into the water, and looking for the smoke, will never find it, and we can only watch as she never pops her head up like a firework dud. The lifeguards run their useless legs into the water, and even the moon knows it’s too late.”
Dressed All Wrong For This feels like a grab bag of topics and crazy characters that Witte has masterfully wrangled together, a spectacle of oddities and tearjerkers. I found myself laughing at these stories. They felt familiar, yet, no normal person would dare put them to the test. Then I found myself stunned at the next act and how thought provoking it was. Quick one-liners that jut out, zigging and zagging through the busy narrative traffic. Her range is universal, bouncing from funny to sad, the same way the clowns in her stories represent comedies and tragedies: makeup of frowns and smiles that at first glance might deceive you. Witte’s book is perfect for the daydreamer that wants a quick escape. Something that will bring a smile in the void of this reality.